Fight Erupts in D.C. Over Plight of Palestinian Christians

By Ori Nir

Published June 23, 2006, issue of June 23, 2006.
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WASHINGTON — A battle has erupted on Capitol Hill over who should be blamed for the plight of Palestinian Christians: Israel or the Palestinian Authority.

All sides agree that the Christian community in the West Bank faces existential threats and is dwindling, from 20% of the population 50 years to about 1.5% today. They bitterly disagree, however, about who should be held responsible for the decline.

Some argue that the continuing burden of Israel’s occupation is the main culprit; others contend that it is the Palestinian Authority that is mainly responsible, because it allegedly engages in religious discrimination and turns a blind eye to the harassment and persecution of Christians.

The debate itself is not new. Israel and some of its advocates in the United States have in the past fended off accusations regarding the negative impact on Christians of Israeli policies in the West Bank by arguing that intra-Palestinian tensions play a more decisive role in pushing Palestinian Christians to leave the territories. This time around, however, the tussle is taking place on Capitol Hill, with Palestinian Christian activists and their backers attempting to rally the White House for help, and pro-Israel forces trying to leverage government support through legislation.

The battle erupted last month, when the powerful chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, sent a letter to President Bush, warning that “Israeli actions [in the West Bank] seem to go beyond the realm of legitimate security concerns and have negative consequences on communities and lands under their [sic] occupation.” Hyde wrote that while America should support Israel’s self-defense, it is “important that United States’ support for Israel not be perceived as involving the affirmation of injustice.”

Days after the letter was sent, an aide to Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, drafted a resolution blasting the P.A. over the plight of Christians in the territories. The resolution, which makes no attempt to place any degree of blame on Israel, calls on the president and the secretary of state “to address the condition of minorities under Palestinian Authority rule in order to save from destruction the oldest Christian community in the world.” It also urges the State Department to “investigate and report on the extent of human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority” against Palestinian Christians.

American and Palestinian Christians say that they were not consulted about the proposed resolution. They also point out that it was drafted with the help of an Israeli lawyer, and they say that the current version of the text is marked by distortions and misinformation.

Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, also sponsors the resolution. So far, staffers for Crowley and McCaul — both members of the House International Relations Committee, chaired by Hyde — have recruited more than 20 co-sponsors, including the chair of the House’s subcommittee on the Middle East and the lead candidate to succeed Hyde, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, and the committee’s minority leader, Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat.

Opponents of the resolution, including Christian groups in the United States and in the West Bank, say that the two congressional aides who prepared the bill, Ari Stein of McCaul’s office and Gregg Sheiowitz of Crowley’s office, never consulted any American Christian groups or activists who assist Palestinian Christians. Nor did they talk to any Palestinian Christians, critics said.

The two staffers refused to talk with the Forward on the record, but congressional aides familiar with the bill confirmed that no Christian groups or activists — whether in America or in the West Bank — were consulted. After the two circulated the draft resolution and a “Dear Colleague” letter to House members, urging them to co-sponsor the bill, several American Christian groups, including the Conference of Catholic Bishops, called and met with Crowley and McCaul’s staffers, protesting the resolution and the manner in which it was drafted.

Opponents contend that the factual basis of the legislation is flawed. For example, they challenged the bill’s claims that “Palestinian Christians are forced to follow Islamic law in public or face arrest by Palestinian Authority police”; that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority’s late president, and his supporters “effectively cleansed the [P.A.’s] bureaucracy of Christians”; that “Palestinian Christians are denied jobs in state-run organizations”; that “Palestinian Christians are accused of being Israeli and American collaborators and are interrogated and imprisoned without reason”; that the Palestinian police do not respond to harassment complaints made by Palestinian Christians, and that the unpunished violence toward Christians “has led to a significant increase in pervasive sexual harassment and rape.”

Daphne Tsimhoni, a professor at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and a leading scholar on Christian minorities in the Middle East, told the Forward that almost all the bill’s assertions are either exaggerations, misrepresentations or sheer fabrications.

The aides to McCaul and Crowley told fellow congressional staffers that their main source of information was several reports and articles by Justus Reid Weiner, an Israeli lawyer. Weiner works for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a right-of-center think-tank. Dore Gold, who was a political adviser to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and previously served as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, directs the center.

Weiner has written extensively in the past about human rights violations of Christians in the West Bank, faulting the Palestinian society and the Palestinian government for their plight. Some scholars, including Tsimhoni, Palestinian Christians and American Christian groups, have challenged his research. Congressional aides closely familiar with the legislation said that Weiner helped draft the bill. Weiner confirmed to the Forward that he had “seen a draft [of the bill] at one point or another.”

Palestinian Christians and pro-Palestinian activists say that although there may have been isolated incidents of harassment of Palestinian Christians by Palestinian Muslims, and although Palestinian Christians are concerned by the rise to power of militant Islamists in the West Bank, the attempt to portray these phenomena as a systematic pattern of persecution of Christians by the P.A. is absurd.

“This, to me, is like trying to drown a fish in water,” said Afif Safieh, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission to Washington. Safieh, a Roman Catholic with scores of relatives in the West Bank, said that the incidents of which he is aware are ones that can be attributed to “lawlessness from which the entire population suffers.” He added that the PLO always has been “extremely open-minded and fair toward the Christian community.”

Christians, he said, are overrepresented in the Palestinian political system and in the P.A.’s bureaucracy. He added that, despite his political differences with the ruling militant Hamas organization, he must admit that the Islamist movement has not taken any steps to discriminate against Christians and has not imposed Islamic law.

“Hamas has not annoyed or disturbed Palestinian Christians,” he said.

Pressure by pro-Palestinian groups to “nip this legislation in the bud,” in the words of James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, is showing some signs of success.

Congressional aides familiar with the legislation say that the bill’s drafters now realize they erred by not consulting Christian groups, and that their resolution may contain some factual errors. They pointed out that the bill is still in draft form and has not yet been submitted. Its sponsors intend to do so soon.

They said that comments by church groups as well as by pro-Palestinian activists could be taken into account to address inaccuracies before final language is submitted.

The dispute over Palestinian Christians is now playing out over another piece of legislation. Critics of Israel’s West Bank policies are blocking a resolution pushed by the Orthodox Union, marking the 39th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. The same critics object to an assertion in the bill, which says that Jerusalem is “a unified city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected.”

The question of whether Palestinian Christians have the freedom to access their places of worship in and around Jerusalem is of particular concern to Hyde.

Hyde attached a copy of a report prepared by his staff to his May 19 letter to Bush, documenting the alleged impact of Israel’s security barrier in and around Christian population centers, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The report was based on a series of visits by Hyde’s staff to Israel and the West Bank over the past two years. Specifically, the report talks about sections of the barrier being built on Palestinian Christian land, the inability of Palestinian Christians to access their places of worship because of Israeli travel restrictions, and the Israeli government’s backing of aggressive attempts by militant Jewish settlers to move into the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and into other predominantly Christian parts of Jerusalem.

Hyde’s letter was private, but it became very public when syndicated columnist Robert Novak quoted from it extensively in a May 23 column. Novak has written about the issue in the past, but this column was particularly embarrassing for several reasons, Israeli diplomats said. It came as American Christian groups were discussing divestment from Israel to protest its policies in the West Bank. It also was sent days before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Washington. Novak suggested in his column that the issue be discussed during Olmert’s White House meeting with the president. According to sources close to Olmert, it was not; however, in recent weeks the White House has expressed interest in Hyde’s report. Earlier this month, a senior official in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office met with Hyde’s staffers and promised to follow up on the matter.






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